Man awarded $27 million for wrongful murder, arson conviction
CHICAGO - Adam Gray had just turned 14 when he was arrested and accused of starting a fatal blaze at a home in Chicago’s Brighton Park neighborhood in 1993.
He spent 24 years behind bars for murder and arson until his conviction was vacated and he was released in 2017.
Gray, now 44, sued the city and the police officers he claimed framed him and coerced his confession. On Thursday, a U.S. District Court jury awarded him $27 million in damages.
Deliberations began Tuesday afternoon; jurors announced their verdict around 1:30 p.m. Thursday.
During closing arguments Tuesday, Gray’s attorney, Jon Loevy, had argued Gray should receive $24 million to $48 million in damages, based on $1 million to $2 million for each year he spent in prison.
The fire, which killed two people, was originally ruled an arson. But that determination was based on the since-discredited belief that charring and "alligator" cracking of paint were indicators of arson.
Three Chicago Police Department detectives were named as defendants — Daniel McInerney, Nicholas Crescenzo and Michael Pochordo. Only McInerney survives. He attended closing statements.
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McInerney was not found liable on any of Gray’s claims and was not ordered to pay any punitive damages.
The jury agreed Crescenzo and Pochordo had coerced Gray’s confession, and that Crescenzo had fabricated evidence. But they disagreed with Gray on some of his other claims, finding that Crescenzo had not failed to disclose evidence and that McInerney had not detained Gray unlawfully.
Gray’s confession, the morning after the fire, had come after hours of questioning without a parent or lawyer present. His supposed motive was to exact revenge on a girl who had rejected him. Gray was sentenced to life in prison without parole in 1996.
Gray maintained his innocence throughout his trial and incarceration. A pro bono legal team spent years arguing Gray’s conviction was based on outdated fire science.
Former Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez ordered Gray to be retried in 2016, but Cook County Judge Angela Petrone rejected the request, the Sun-Times previously reported.
In May 2017, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx filed a joint motion to vacate the conviction, dismiss the charges against Gray and release him from prison. Gray filed for a certificate of innocence, which was granted in February 2018.
A certificate of innocence removes a conviction from individual’s record and indicates they should never have had a criminal record. The state awarded Gray $226,506 in compensation in 2018, according to Illinois Court of Claims documents.
In closing arguments, Loevy had called the fire investigation "the worst police investigation of all time" and said Gray’s wrongful conviction and incarceration were a "heinous crime," tantamount to "abducting a child."
Defense attorney Elizabeth Ekl argued Gray was not necessarily innocent and that he had not been framed or coerced.
Eyewitness accounts and a milk jug investigators found nearby and thought had held gasoline were used to support the arson theory. The fire is no longer considered an arson, and there is no evidence an accelerant like gasoline was present, Loevy said.
"If you can’t rule out accident, you can’t call it arson," Loevy said.
Ekl said even though gasoline was not found at the scene, witnesses said they smelled gasoline, and water could have washed away traces of an accelerant.
In his closing statement, Loevy highlighted what he described as a rush to judgment and outlined how officers manipulated Gray and witnesses and fabricated evidence.
"They decided that somebody had to pay," Loevy said at a news conference following the verdict. "Adam was arrested before breakfast. They had the case closed before noon. They were home early for dinner."
Roshna Bala Keen, another member of Gray’s legal team, detailed Gray’s time in juvenile detention and prison — the bullying and physical abuse he experienced, as well as the sexual abuse and assaults he witnessed.
Gray also attempted suicide during his incarceration, Keen said. Once, Gray cut himself and spelled out "innocent" in his own blood.
Ekl disputed Gray’s claims of being abused in prison, saying he was known as a problem child who often started fights. And, despite Gray’s certificate of innocence, explained how he could have committed the crime.
At the news conference after the verdict, Gray shared a brief message before leaving. Loevy said he hopes Gray never sees the inside of a courthouse again.
"These dirty cops need to be stopped. It’s out of control," Gray said. "Break down to the blue wall of silence."
Loevy said this trial allowed Gray to share his story and get justice. He added that he believes this decision will send a message to the city about wrongful convictions.